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How Long Can Employees Be Signed Off Work With Stress?

Pressure at Work

Work-related stress is a concern many business owners have regarding employees. Stress is something that many people have to deal with from time to time, sure, but when it reaches a breaking point, it can have disastrous implications for mental health. Mental health problems are becoming increasingly prevalent throughout the UK, with reports of breakdowns and even panic attacks occurring often among younger employees.

But where’s the line when offering support, and what does that support entail, and for how long? This article will go over employees’ rights to time off over poor mental health, the employer’s legal responsibilities, and how to navigate this problem that the business world is becoming more aware of.

How Long Can An Employee Take Absence Due To Stress?

This may be a shock to find out, but there’s no legal limit set. Each case is analysed and judged by doctors and employers. This theoretically means that an employee could technically be away due to work-related stress for years at a time. This doesn’t mean an employer is powerless, however. An employee has the requirement to correspond with their employers and provide them with fit notes, which a doctor will sign off on with their ongoing diagnosis. These notes are instrumental in how you navigate an employee being absent.

The following are two cases in which the fit note of the employee was a key part of their company’s decision to dismiss them.

Unjustified Dismissal

St Catherine Academy saw fit to dismiss a team member named Ms O’Brien after she took an extended leave from work due to work-related stress. The leave lasted for over a year, and her claim was that she was stressed and felt unsafe due to pupils within the school. Eventually, O’Brien’s GP provided a fit note that detailed that the teacher was unsure about returning to work despite the GP indicating she may soon be fit to return to work.

As a result, the school dismissed her, citing that there had been significant disruption to their operations. O’Brien took this to court in a case named “O’Brien v Bolton St Catherine’s Academy”.

The employment tribunal initially ruled in Ms O’Brien’s favour, but this decision was overturned during an appeal, highlighting the prolonged absence effect on the workplace. But upon another appeal, the scales once again shifted to O’Brien. The court stated that the evidence that the school acted upon was too shallow.

This should set a precedent for any who think to dismiss their employee for sick leave. Ensure that you have substantial evidence before you make your decision. Had the academy done some further investigation, they may have had enough evidence to move on from the situation undamaged.

Justified Dismissal

British Airways dismissed their employee, named Garcha-Singh, after an extended long-term sick leave due to mental health. The specific issues were not outlined, but British Airways provided several extensions to the sick leave between 2016 and 2017.

Throughout 2017, Garcha-Singh had several medical assessments evaluating his ability to return to work. BA kept in contact with the employee throughout this period, exploring possible adjustments it could make for his return to work.

Nonetheless, after more than a year of absence taking its toll on the operational effectiveness of British Airways, they decided to proceed with the dismissal after seeing no improvement to Garcha’s ability to return.

Garcha-Singh challenged the dismissal, leading to the Employment Tribunal of “Garcha-Singh vs British Airways plc”. The tribunal reviewed the evidence and found the dismissal was fair. They believed the employer had given more than sufficient time for recovery and opened avenues for him to return with accommodation.

This proves that if an employer makes reasonable steps towards facilitating an employee’s health, they will remain well within their rights to dismiss should circumstances fail to change.

Doctor's Note

Identifying Mental Health Problems

Understanding mental health issues that your workplace may face is the first step in ensuring their management and possible prevention. As far as the UK is concerned, these issues can range from generalised negative feelings to debilitating conditions.

Here are some of the mental health problems you may find your workplace grappling with:

  • Anxiety – Persistent worry about various, sometimes basic aspects of life.
  • Stress – The feeling of being overwhelmed.
  • Depression – Persistent low mood, self-esteem and generalised lack of interest.
  • Panic Attacks – Episodes of intense fear that often come with physical symptoms.
  • Burnout – Physical, emotional and mental exhaustion over work.


These conditions can also make way for physical illness, and it’s not uncommon for this to result in doctor’s visits and a possible diagnosis for some of the previous conditions. If a doctor thinks it wise, they may introduce the possibility of a sickness absence due to work-related stress.

What causes these issues in the workplace?

The cause can be anything from a wide range of issues. For example, it could be due to long hours, or difficult relationships with work colleagues or a line manager. Furthermore, on top of work-related factors, there could be underlying mental illness that exacerbates these issues.

Overall, it’s mainly the doctor’s job to diagnose, and an employee is likely to be very forthcoming and responsive to a doctor’s professional advice, and this comes with a lot of legal power.

What Are Employers’ Rights And Regulations Concerning Mental Health Sickness?

Employers are expected to support mental health within the workplace, as well as give sick leave to employees with ill health, mental or physical.

The following are some legislative pieces that mandate this:

  • Employment Rights Act 1996 – This act is a foundational framework of employment rights, including sickness absence and statutory sick pay.
    • Section 151: “An employee who is absent from work owing to incapacity shall be entitled to Statutory Sick Pay if the day of incapacity falls on a qualifying day and the conditions set out in this Part of this Act are satisfied.”
  • Equality Act 2010 – This act protects employees from discrimination, whether that be through mental health issues or physical disability.
    • Section 6(1): “A person (P) has a disability if— (a) P has a physical or mental impairment, and (b) the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on P’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.”
  • Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 – Employers are obligated to ensure the health and safety of their employees at work, assessing obvious signs of workplace risks to physical and mental health.
    • Section 2(1): “It shall be the duty of every employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his employees.”
  • Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 – These regulations expand further on the need to monitor the health and safety of employees within the workplace.
    • Regulation 3(1): “Every employer shall make a suitable and sufficient assessment of— (a) the risks to the health and safety of his employees to which they are exposed whilst they are at work; (b) the risks to the health and safety of persons not in his employment arising out of or in connection with the conduct by him of his undertaking.”


An Employee’s Rights To Time Off Work With Stress

An employee can take time signed off work with the help of a doctor, as they will be the ones who make the diagnosis and facilitate sick leave. Their request is not to be taken lightly, but can technically be denied.

The following are the rights under employment law that allow an employee to take sick leave to support mental health:

  • Signed Off Work – Employees are entitled to sick leave if a doctor deems their mental health to be too weak. Employment Rights Act of 1996 allows this to support the well-being of workers.
  • Sick Note – If this sickness goes on for more than seven days, employees are required to hand in a sick note (aka fit note) written by a healthcare provider.
  • Phased Return with Reasonable Adjustments – After long-term sickness, a doctor will oversee their phased return. An employer is expected to take reasonable steps to accommodate, such as reducing workload or offering reduced hours.


How To Improve Mental Health As An Employer

Whilst some employers are health professionals, most aren’t. Nonetheless, here are some practical steps that employers use to help with mental health:

  • Communication – Open lines of communication allow the employee to talk to their employer about their mental health struggles, as well as workplace problems. This is the first, and possibly only, requirement to head any problems off at the pass.
  • Annual Leave and Non-Working Days – Annual leave is a legal right in the UK. Ensure, however, that they are properly utilised by suggesting taking time away from work to recharge mental batteries and address any underlying issues.
  • Professionals – Seeking professional advice from healthcare experts in managing work-related stress.
  • Support Systems – Construct support systems in the form of access to mental health professionals and resources.
  • Awareness Training – If your industry is facing higher rates of mental health issues than normal, consider installing a training course in-house on how to handle situations effectively.


Healthy Work Environment


Overall, work-related stress resulting in an employee being signed off work can be a blow to the workplace. As with many possible workplace issues, it’s always best to get ahead of them before they happen. Mental illness and disability are something that society will likely never rid itself of, and so long as there is work, there’s always a good chance that it will manifest.

FAQs On Work With Stress Absence

What is considered stress under UK Law?

Stress is not defined by specific legislation. Working with stress is a common and often manageable thing, and employers are expected to manage it with increased enthusiasm.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines stress as an adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other demands placed on them at work.

Ultimately, it’s down to a doctor to define where it goes too far in individual cases.

When can an employer refuse stress leave?

There are several times an employer can refuse stress leave:

  • Lack of Medical Evidence – An employer can ask for medical evidence from a doctor to provide a proper diagnosis. Failure to provide this medical evidence grants the employer the final decision.
  • Non work-related stress – If the source of stress is outside of work, then an employer doesn’t have any obligation to give work leave. The only times in which an employee may have some power is if they cannot, or do not have, any more holiday time to take to resolve issues they’re unable to resolve due to work hours.
  • Operational Impact – A business is allowed to defend itself from negative operational impacts caused by employee absence.


Bear in mind that an employer should always give a reason. Failing to give a reason is essentially providing a reason for future legal headaches.

When does an employer have to grant stress leave?

An employer never truly has to grant stress leave. But they could face legal action if they refuse in the face of the following factors:

  • Disability Consideration – If the stress is severe enough to be considered a disability under the Equality Act of 2010, an employer must act. Either through leaves or making necessary adjustments to the workplace immediately.
  • Discrimination Avoidance – Refusal based on reasons that cannot be described as anything else but discriminatory could be viewed as protected characteristics being attacked.


What role do HR departments play in handling stress?

HR departments are a fantastic asset in managing employee relations overall. Part of their work involves creating clear policies surrounding mental health, helping you support employees and keeping you within the borders of legislation. Furthermore, HR departments typically act as a go-between for employers and employees, allowing you to address issues that a worker may feel uncomfortable bringing up directly to you.


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